China cuisine boasts an ingredient that is, like George Smiley, the perfect spy. John Le Carre’s famous character was able to disappear into his surroundings, practically taking on the colors of the wallpaper behind him. The same goes for bean curd. Call it what you will — doufu or tofu — the chameleon can be made into just about any part of a meal, savory or sweet.
Before being turned into curd, soy bean milk is to the Chinese what cow milk is to the West, a nutritious beverage that starts the morning and soothes hunger pangs the rest of the day.
Chinese culinary creativity is rarely surpassed, and with soy beans and bean curd, local chefs have the perfect medium with which to exercise their imaginations. When soy milk is boiled down and a skin forms on top, the soy skins, can be transformed into what the Chinese call vegetarian “chicken,” “goose” or “ham.” They can also be dried into long batons called “curd bamboo” (fuzhu).
Bean curd comes in so many different textures and incarnations that books could be written about little else in the Chinese culinary firmament. Solid squares of regular or soft bean curd are the most common forms, and this is what usually appears on your plate in Chinese restaurants. But extra-firm bean curd (lao doufu), is better suited for skewering or for use in recipes where the tofu might otherwise break apart.
When blocks of bean curd have had most of their moisture squeezed out, the result is meaty pressed bean curd (doufugan). When the tofu is formed into sheets that are flattened into the thinnest of layers and then folded onto each other it is called a “hundred layers” (baiye).
On the other end of the spectrum is tender bean curd (nen doufu), or its quivering cousin, “flower bean curd” (douhua), which looks like custard to most people. The denizens of Beijing call an even softer variety “bean curd brains” (doufunao).
Whatever form your doufu takes, try to buy an organic, fresh variety. The flavor is incomparable. Light and delicious, the taste is much like farmer cheese, as there are no preservatives to cloud the flavor. Bean curd should be used immediately, but if you have to hold it for a short while, cover it with water and refrigerate in a closed container.
Just about any bean curd is fine with me, but this deep fried preparation always gets my mouth watering. The recipe below is a riff on the Taiwanese street food called Salty Crispy Chicken. This delicious vegan snack will please even sworn carnivores.
Crispy Bean Curd Nuggets
鹽酥豆腐 or Yansu Doufu
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer or cocktail snack
- Pat the bean curd dry with a towel and slice it horizontally into two halves. Cut down and across the block four times each way to form 32 small cubes. Place the cubes in a clean towel set in a bowl or colander. Cover the bean curd with the top of the towel and lightly press down to sponge off some of the water. Let the bean curd sit in the towel for about an hour to remove most of the excess water.
- Mix the garlic, green onion, ginger, ½ teaspoon five spice powder, black pepper, 1 teaspoon salt and sugar in a bowl. Add the cubed bean curd. Toss together and add the rice wine and soy sauce before tossing again. Cover the bowl, refrigerate and let the bean curd marinate from 1 to 3 hours.
- Drain off the liquid. Sprinkle the sweet potato flour and the rest of the five spice powder over the bean curd, and use your fingers to toss the bean curd so that each cube is coated with the flour. (This dish may be prepared ahead of time up to this point.)
- Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan over medium high until a wooden chopstick inserted in the oil immediately bubbles all over. Place a dry colander or Chinese spider on top of a work bowl next to the stove. Add a handful of the coated bean curd carefully to the hot oil. As soon as they have browned on one side, use a spatula to turn them over. When all of the cubes are an even golden brown, remove them to the colander or spider to drain. Return the oil to the original heat and add another handful of the coated bean curd. When all of it has been fried, plate the fried bean curd, sprinkle with the rest of the salt and serve immediately while it is still hot and crunchy.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Top photo: Crispy tofu nugget. Photo and slide show credit: Carolyn J. Phillips